President of Petro Design/Build, Inc. is one of the Washington area's leading landscape and garden design experts. Her insightful advice on landscape design, construction, and practice has been published and quoted innumerous regional and national magazines. She has developed and taught accredited courses in horticulture and has lectured for garden clubs, the National Association of Remodeling Industry, the Landscape Contractors Association, the Smithsonian Educational Series, the George Washington University landscape design program, and the Washington Design Center.
Making Your Existing Landscape User Friendly
Q.My existing landscape is not as �user friendly� or as easy as I had hoped. What can I do now and into the winter to help me with next season�s outdoor use, entertainment and maintenance?
A.Winter is the ideal time to plan your spring landscape. It gives you time to organize your thoughts on paper, develop a budget, a plan for implementation, and get an early start.
To begin; make a list of things you like and don�t like about your landscape. Then develop a list of things you would like to have included and number them according to priority. Our company sends out a comprehensive questionnaire to get potential clients thinking prior to the initial site visit.
Among the many considerations in planning your landscape:
- Why is your landscape not �user friendly'?
- Is there not enough room for guest/family or for your tables and chairs? How many people would you like to have room for? How often? Sometimes a simple wall can serve to retain or border a space while adding additional seating.
- Are bugs a problem? Could standing water be a factor in this? Any drainage issues should be placed at the top of your list.
- Is there not enough light at night?
- Are surrounding views and neighbors or is noise a problem?
- How long are you going to stay in your home? This could re-prioritize your list.
- In regards to maintenance; is watering, weeding or mowing a concern? From rain water collection to planning for reduced turf; there are lots of sustainable practices that will minimize maintenance in many areas.
- What is your immediate budget for amendments and/or enhancements? This is typically something that a homeowner finds difficult to establish since costs change frequently. A qualified design/build landscape professional should be able to provide preliminary budgets based on your list and site analysis and even help prioritize your list based on the order necessary for implementation.
Once your list is complete, a comprehensive plan will help you visualize your spaces and allow you to easily make any changes based on your desires and immediate or long term budgets.
It�s a fun process and will help the winter zip by with visions of warmer temperature in easy and functional outdoor spaces!
- Why is your landscape not �user friendly'?
Landscaping Your Home
Q.I've just purchased an older home and plan extensive renovations and additions.I want to plan my landscape and get started. How should I proceed?
A.Plan the garden design simultaneously to the remodeling design. Existing plant materials may need to be removed and possibly saved for future installations depending on the design specifics. Hardscapes (pools, patio areas, decking) are next. Grading and any necessary exterior drainage issues should be considered in the design and implemented before and after the exterior construction to divert water away from the foundation and yard. The plantings could begin with the perimeter/accent or shade trees, followed by the shrubs, perennials and groundcovers, depending on the progress of the remodeling and, of course, the budget.
Q.I love color in the garden but have minimal time to maintain a garden. Who should I consult with concerning which plants will thrive in this climate, provide year round color and work in my existing garden with low maintenance?
A.Although landscape architects and designers are trained in design, very few have the horticultural training and experience necessary to risk warranties on plant material. Consult a landscape design/build firm with an experienced horticulturist on staff. You will get a realistic approach to design, necessary site preparations, budget and maintenance.
Q.I’m very confused about an appropriate fence/gate/arbor designs and materials for my new “track” home. I like my home but it does seem to have a lot of different style elements. Any suggestions?
A.Although it can be problematic with many of today’s new homes having several different styles merging together, the most important thing is to not add to the confusion but unify. Select one or two elements; windows, trim style or cornice detail and work with it in the design and construction of other elements within the landscape. Interior styles can be echoed in the rear exterior spaces to create a flow from the inside out through the use of similar interior colors, materials and themes.
Q.My front walkway provides limited access, is not lighted well and has settled considerably. I’m happy with the surrounding mature plantings and don’t want to damage what is there. Any suggestions?
A.Typically, if the walkway has settled, so have the plantings. Both could cause water problems that will get worse over time. Some plantings are worth the risk and/or cost to transplant and some are not. A new reinforced walkway designed to compliment architectural features and materials of the house, provide adequate room for 2 people to walk side by side and work with your existing garden style should be discussed, on site, with a professional experienced in grading, drainage, plantings and landscape construction. Established trees can provide an excellent source for lighting of the walkway and surrounding areas. Lighting located above eye level will light more area with fewer fixtures. Conduit and electrical should be designed and installed prior to construction.
Climate Change - No Secret
The Smithsonian Educational Research Center (SERC) in Edgewater, Md. has been in my town for as long as I can remember. We all thought of it as a secret society of scientists that worked on stuff we had neither the necessary clearance to access nor the brain power to understand�and we all knew that scientists just wanted to be left alone. Even the signage for their site simply stated its location�it was certainly not an invitation to enter.
Recently I had the opportunity to spend a week at SERC. The prospect of living, hiking and working in the forest with scientists and other environmentally-minded people on this secret site was exciting, yet daunting. After completing a rather lengthy questionnaire, obtaining a health report from my doctor, and coordinating my schedule so that I could actually participate in either one of the two weeks available, I was chosen�to my somewhat apprehensive surprise�to be on the first team.
I learned from the introductory briefing that the HSBC Climate Partnership (�The world�s local bank�) is a $100 million, five-year program that brings together HSBC, The Climate Group, Earthwatch Institute, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and WWF to tackle the urgent threat of climate change on people, water, forests and cities. My team was going to be able participate in field study with leading scientists and research professionals that would inspire actions to combat climate change.
Admittedly, scientists are not typically considered great communicators. Since SERC is federally funded agency, these scientists cannot procure lobbyists to carry their critical findings to those in government who may be able to make a difference. In fact, I was told, they really can�t share their opinions with anyone outside their center; just the facts.
Certain facts on CO2 were shared with us during the week�s morning and evening sessions. They were sobering to say the least�overwhelming, doomsday, head-for-the-hills kind of statistics. What on earth�or for earth, can I do to make a difference when so much damage has already been done?
Our mid-day field work included data collection for the research project �Sustainable Forest Management in a Changing Climate�. My team of three established and staked research plots within the forest, then identified and recorded tree species, locations, size and crown type, and implemented surveys of deadwood on the forest floor. Lab work included various recordings of our collections and information for the developing database.
My date collecting team: left to right,
Geoff Patton, Linda Lawrence, and me
I did have a bit of an edge in the forest identification part, with my horticultural degree and years of experience. I was reminded of how detailed this information has to be. There is no room for guessing. If a technician even suspected that some information brought back to the lab was incorrect she would walk 1-3 miles back to the research plots to verify it. We checked, reviewed and checked again all collected data. The statistics presented during follow-up sessions were clearly based on years of tedious collections and accurate data entries.
Patience, not being one of my stronger traits, is clearly what scientists excel in. Communicating their findings has to be up to the rest of us. The �butterfly effect� or, as the staff put it, the �ripple effect� is the process to spread the message. Leaders in communities, businesses and organizations are who Earthwatch is tapping into through their partnership and funding with HSBC.
It�s a lot simpler than I thought for each of us to make a difference. Individually and as a team, we developed specific ways in which we can reduce our carbon footprint and encourage others to do the same. Our carbon footprint is a measure of the impact human activities have on the environment in terms of the amount of greenhouse gases produced. The carbon footprint includes all human demands on the biosphere. Sustainability is a characteristic of a process or state that can be maintained at a certain level indefinitely without depleting natural resources.
I will continue to provide specifics on these subjects in upcoming �Tips�, lectures, articles and classes as they relate to landscape design, planting, hardscape and maintenance, as well as how you can continue the �ripple effect� in your own business and family. It�s an exciting new age with numerous opportunities for growth. Let�s keep going.
In the meantime, I noticed just before my week at SERC that the signage had been upgraded to a larger more welcoming display. The researchers and scientist are anxious to tell us about what they have been doing!
SERC is a beautiful 2800 acre site on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay and is open to the public for kayaking and guided tours. We are fortunate to have this center in our area and we should take advantage of its many educational opportunities.
For more information call or visit:
North American Regional Climate Center
c/o Smithsonian Environmental Research Center
647 Contees Wharf Rd.
Edgewater, Md. 21037
Camel Cricket Invasions
If you have them you know it. They are creepy, spider looking crickets with huge frog like legs that can jump 4 feet! They reside in damp, dark basements and have been know to eat clothing. I just heard Dr. Michael Raupp, professor or entomology at the University of Maryland say on National Public Radio that they are a �fun distraction for cats�!!! What!!?? They are there because your basement is damp. They live in caves�or your basement. They jump towards any perceived threat � YOU!
Camel Crickets are avoided by eliminating the dark, damp environment they prefer. Can you think of a better reason to dry out your basement?
I had a client who was constantly getting water through the window in her basement window well. She had installed a sump pump in the well itself in an effort to reduce flooding during rains. The area was surrounded with Camel Crickets. Although she had a book case in front of the window she was resistant to block in the area.
- Number 1 Water is coming in through the window
- Number 2 The window was not a used light source for the basement (Really, how many are?)
- Number 3 The moisture was attracting Camel Crickets!
Close in the window!! This is essentially a minimum expense with lasting benefits.
Recently, it was necessary for me to enter the basement of a project to find and assess the availability of space in the electrical box for proposed outdoor lighting. When I turned on the light in the utility room of the basement, the walls seemed to move. I realized, to my horror, that there were about 10 Camel Crickets per square foot of wall space. My client informed me that they had �always been there� and had continued to bomb the area with an insecticide every month, or so, only to have them return. That�s POISON in a living environment! Who is going to suffer more?
According to Dr. Raupp, Camel Crickets do not reproduce in the house; rather, they are coming in through window wells or wall cracks in the foundation. This basement had all the right ingredients to attract these hideous creatures. Our outdoor electrical project quickly became an exterior drainage project.
What is that Smell??!
The ever more knowledgeable homeowner is keenly aware of the implications of a musty smell. Cracked foundations, flooded basements and deadly molds can send a potential homeowner scrambling to higher ground. A variety of molds, all too familiar after the recent surge in hurricanes, are responsible for everything from allergies to life-threatening diseases.
It's true that years of water seepage along foundation walls or sub-standard foundations can prove to be costly, but often the correction required is as simple and inexpensive as a little regrading.
If you suspect water seepage, check the obvious first. Are the gutters
separated from the fascia board or clogged? Are they bent or sagging from
previous ice build-up or damage from surrounding trees? Are they large enough
for the area of roof space that they drain or the pitch of the roof? Telltale
signs include a line of erosion along the foundation base or mud splashed
on the house from the ground. The best investigation is a walk around the
outside of your house in a good rain to see what is happening.
Frequent overflows can cause compaction and subsequent settling of the soils around the foundation. It's enough to settle concrete stoops and walkways overtime leading to expensive replacements. Check to make sure there is positive flow away from the house. If the grade must be raised the existing waterproofing below the surface should be checked by a competent contractor for viability and raised to the proposed new grade. This includes, at a minimum, a good waterproof parge with an asphalt sealant to prevent water from saturated soils from absorbing into brick, block or concrete. Additional soils to raise grade should consist of a clay base and be compacted to divert water accordingly.
Water from downspouts may need to be diverted away from foundations either by the use of splash blocks or piped underground using PVC piping. It's best to avoid the corrugated ADS piping as it can easily clog and is susceptible to crushing. Exit the piping into a dry well at a lower elevation, to an existing storm drain or through the curb at the street.
Check window wells for debris or silt. Is the gravel visible in the base of the well? Is it below the sill of the window? Is the height of the well enough to retain the appropriate grade? Never allow a contractor to “stack”, “extend” or “add on” to an existing aluminum or galvanized well to increase the height. An entire window well unit can be replaced for as low as $75 and will avoid future separation and seepage. Wells should be secure to the foundation and caulked along the edges.
Cracked block foundation should be repaired from the outside. Minor cracks within concrete foundations can be repaired from the inside.
Other less obvious forms of basement water seepage include broken pipes within or entering through walls in the house, ground water or clogged drain tiles. Some of these drainage corrections can be extensive and may require the services of a drainage consultant to determine when new drain tile, sump pumps or more extensive excavation is required.
There are many molds that can cause serious illnesses. Once introduced, mold spores will always be present but will remain dormant unless activated by moisture. A certified mold-remediator should be contacted for a professional inspection and consultation.
Relatively speaking, drainage correction is one of the least expensive yet most important and effective repairs you can do to insure the safety and condition of your home.
Kathleen Litchfield's Interview on Fox News/Basements Flood Following Storms
"The rain over the past week has left a lot of people with soggy basements. From homes to basement apartments, it's tough on anyone hearing water pouring in and it's enough to drain your wallet and your spirit. Fox 5's Beth Parker shows us how the water gets in and how you can avoid it."
When Experience and Design Matter
Ask any seasoned landscape designer to recall an earlier landscape project that they 'learned' from and you will notice a slight cringe. College sets the groundwork for good research and sound principles. Experience provides the training necessary to design and build long-term successful gardens. Every project becomes a benchmark of the next.
Analysis, for instance, of why one method worked on one site and not another or how project timing can effect construction, plant material or location, become lessons that are often learned at the expense of your business or your client's site. Then there are those that have neither had the formal training or experience in design or construction and base their ability on their record for cutting grass.
The obscene availability and use of the concrete wall and paving materials have opened up a whole new venue for many entrepreneurs. Touted as the 'do-it-yourself' weekend project, business have sprung up overnight offering elaborate outdoor kitchens, spas, terraces and walls for a fraction of the price of more conventional materials. Where many of these projects fail is in the basics of engineering and the lack of experience. I have a photo collection of these failed projects and have consulted on behave of the client in several litigation cases. In close to 30 years of experience in the design/build business, I have seen seemingly innocent outdoor construction projects flood interior finished basements, undermine and crack house foundations, destroy cars, equipment and buildings and end up in years of litigation.
This completed 12' high concrete retaining wall failed during the first heavy rain totaling two of the homeowner's cars and their mower. The initial project was awarded to the low bid. It is now costing 4 times the price for reconstruction.
This is not to suggest that the product is flawed; in fact, we have successfully used the concrete products in many public and commercial areas and I feel that they have their place in the home landscape. What doesn't work, from a design eye, is ignoring the existing house materials or the nature of the site when choosing the exterior building materials. I have been in neighborhoods of traditional brick homes and found that nearly every house had a natural stacked stone planter wall. This echo's of the aluminum siding days. Now, nearly every landscape includes a variety of concrete building blocks and pavers that neither complement nor match the house. My suggestion; invest your money in some well placed and chosen trees that will help with energy cost and home value.
How can you avoid using your garden project as a training site for the inexperienced designer or contractor?
- Look at projects that were implemented
2 and more years ago.
- Check construction for any cracks, warping, splitting, pooling of water, etc.
- Check plantings to see if they are thriving. Deer damaged plants is not an excuse. It's poor selection.
- Designers come and go, in companies, gaining experience and searching for their perfect fit. If you are working with a new designer, find out who is reviewing their design/project and who will ultimately be in charge of your projects success.
- Check warranties of construction and plantings
...And remember that we truly get exactly what we pay for. The more experience someone has, the more they know exactly what things cost to implement and become very aware of how quality in detail, materials and labor truly make the difference in the success of a project and the longevity of their business and reputation.
Winter is viewed, by many, as a welcome break from daily garden chores
and a time to design and plan for spring plantings. Our focus turns inside
as we await warmer temperatures.
In Washington, warmer temperatures often are intermittent throughout the winter. It's not unusual to get 60 and 70 degree days in January and February followed by 20 degree temperatures the very same week. These warmer winter extremes are one of the reason's that several northern plants and trees do not survive in our region.
During these times of warmer temperatures, it's important to be aware of the amount of moisture available to your plants. Sunny, warm winter days can deplete your garden of the moisture necessary for survival through impending colder temperatures. We tend to assume that winter is always a time of rest for the garden. This past summer and fall were relatively dry and there is no guarantee that the winter and spring months will provide an adequate amount of snow or rain for new or established plantings. A well watered garden, no matter what the time of year, will avoid costly replacements in the spring. Make sure that the areas being watered are well drained, as well, to prevent freezing of standing water.
While you are in the garden with your watering hose, on one of our assured warm winter days, there are a few other things that you can do as well.
- If you didn't do this in the fall, apply an antitranspirant to your broad leaved evergreens. This will help prevent loss of water during cold, sunny and windy weather. Temperatures need to be above 40 degrees for this.
- Check for broken branches on large trees that may damage surrounding structures or vegetation, and cut and remove them.
- Winter is the best time to prune trees that bleed in the spring. These include maples, beeches and yellowoods
- If snow has already fallen once, your perennial foliage is probably looking poor. Cut this foliage and add to your compost pile. Be sure that your perennial bed is adequately protected (mulched) with either leaves or shredded hardwood bark.
- Fill bird feeders regularly.
Enjoy the Washington area's diversity in temperatures. I keep my BBQ on-the-ready, my firewood dry, my hose available and the promise of change as the next adventure throughout the winter.
Protecting your Investment
Prior to the initial site visit and consultation we ask that a new client
complete and return a comprehensive questionnaire to help them define their
likes, dislikes, dreams and budget. It includes a check list for everything
from additions to the colors of flowers. It gives me a realistic perspective
of what to expect so that I can prepare for the meeting as well.
With 30 years of experience in site analysis and design, I could easily write a book on client desires and budgets versus site restrictions and needs. I will focus on two of the top site conditions that are typically overlooked when homeowners define their budget considerations. They are:
1. Existing trees
1. Invest your initial landscape budget on protecting and maintaining your existing trees
Large, established, healthy trees can be priceless to your site. Statistically,
they can add between 13%-19% to the value of your home. Likewise, trees
in poor health or in need of major pruning or cabling, can threaten your
investment through fallen limbs or the whole tree. In a wooded setting,
selective tree removals can extend the life of more desirable trees.
The first order of business in site considerations and budget is tree protection, care and maintenance. Planning and budgeting this critical aspect of your landscape can save you thousands in future renovations, repair cost and new plantings. I have been on many projects where the house, addition or new exterior construction was designed to take advantage of the existing stately trees, and yet, no care was taken during the construction of the house to avoid damage to these trees! That’s priceless!!! On other sites, the initial budget was spent on a beautifully landscaped ‘shade garden’. Now the shade is gone and the garden is quickly declining.
Be careful when you choose someone to implement your tree work. Make sure that they are certified arborist and licensed. Tree care and even pruning is a learned trade. I will reserve the cheap-guys-in-the-out-of-state-pick-up-truck horror stories for my book.
2. Address drainage issues before they damage your home, site or even your health
I’m sure that, by now, you all have heard of Stachybotrys mold. It
grows on extremely wet building materials containing cellulose that have
remained wet for more than a week. It produces mycotoxins that can irritate
skin and mucous membranes. One potent mycotoxin produced by Stachybotrys
is called satratoxin; it is toxic when inhaled. It can lead to death. Wet
Being very sensitive to molds myself, I carry a mask with me when investigating possible basement drainage issues. I have been in basements where the children’s play space is located near an adjoining wall that is covered with this ‘black mold.’
Why is this information on a landscape website? Because, the majority of drainage issues can and should be addressed from the outside of the house. Regrading, gutter replacements or repairs, exterior waterproofing, surface and French drains all involve the landscape in some way. Settling foundations, patios and porches can divert surface water into your home, compromising foundation walls, ruining interior furnishings, walls and flooring and possibly contributing to deadly molds. Water settling within your yard or landscape can cause a variety of fungal problems adversely affecting your plants and turf, as well as contributing to the mosquito population.
Addressing drainage issues prior to new construction or landscaping is the most cost effective (often easiest), amendment you can implement and a smart first step when considering your initial budget.
• Adding value to your home through good landscaping
• Cutting energy cost with sound planting design
Curb appeal; selling your house now or in the future.
Xeroscaping; landscaping for current and future droughts
Outdoor rooms for entertaining
WATER, WATER, WATER!!!!!!!!!
I can not stress enough the importance of fall watering; particularly after coming through such a devastatingly dry summer. Even an irrigation system was not enough to establish and maintain plantings this year. Chances are, if you were watering your plants individually, the water was absorbing into the surrounding soil quicker than your plants could absorb it. Any adjacent surrounding trees would have done the same.
I just came from a site where the homeowner swears she watered religiously
(and I believe her). When I dug up one of her plants the soil was
bone dry. Her soil included a large percentage of mica (a very porous
silty/shale-type material) and she had surrounding established trees.
Whatever water was able to remain in such a loose soil was quickly absorbed
by the trees…and they didn’t even look so good. I
saw 50-75 year old trees die this summer because of the drought and improper
maintenance practices. (More on this during another monthly tip)
Did you use a sprinkler to water your plants? You should know that about 70% ended up in the atmosphere and if you thought that piling mulch on your beds would hold in the moisture, think again. You have added a ‘sponge’ to your garden. Additionally, that mulch encouraged the root systems of your trees and shrubs to surface, as they gasped for air and water, causing them to dry out further.
OK, so we are going into the fall; the time of year when the foliage part of the plant starts to slow and the root system continues to thrive and get ready for its winter hibernation. Are you getting where I’m going with this? Hibernation, storing-up energy, getting ready for the brutality of winter? WATER is crucial now. Not mulch.
Please plan accordingly and call me with questions or to schedule a site visit to help you get ready for winter.
PETRO in Print — Our Latest Advertising Campaigns!
Recently published ads in Home and Design (top) and Capitol File magazines (bottom)
Solutions at Home
Dried Out Conserve Water with Ecco-friendly Landscaping
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Home and Design Luxury Expo
Guide to Seminars and Exhibitors
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Home and Design
Elegant Private Oasis
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Home and Design Magazine Late Fall
Ask the Experts: Enjoy the Great Outdoors
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